At this point, we pretty much take for granted the power of graphics to help journalists explain — stories, concepts, context. What we pay less attention to is graphics’ power to persuade. But that could (and, maybe, should) be changing. A new paper (pdf) on motivated reasoning and political misperception — the latest from political science professors Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth, and Jason Reifler, of Georgia State — suggests that graphics can also provide a powerful, and perhaps essential, way of counteracting misinformation. In the political world, in particular — but presumably in the broader sphere, as well.
The paper (full title: “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions”) shares findings from three experiments that asked participants to assess sets of controversial data: on the U.S. troop-level surge in Iraq in 2007, the jobs market under the Obama administration, and global temperature change. From those, it draws two big conclusions about the psychology of misinformation: First, that external affirmations of “self-worth” — essentially, the buttressing of people’s sense of their own values and worldviews — can actually reduce misperceptions among the people who are most likely to resist information that runs counter to their already-held beliefs; and, second, that graphical presentation of corrections (and of controversial information in general) can be more powerful than their textual counterparts in terms of convincing people to amend their misperceptions.
Though the first finding is, wow, fascinating — “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, global warming is scientific fact” — it’s the second that holds the most obvious and immediate implications for journalism. We know it intuitively: Graphics, with their stark, efficient presentation of ostensibly authorless information, are powerful vehicles of facts. And they can be powerful cleansers to the misunderstandings that pollute the (political) atmosphere. Words invite interpretation; graphics invite consumption. Graphics’ frankness — and, with it, their raw persuasive power — suggest, as Nyhan and Reifler put it, “the exciting possibility that graphical corrections can reduce misperceptions more effectively than text.”
For journalism, that should also suggest that infographics deserve even more prominent placement in news narratives — particularly when those narratives involve information that is, for whatever reason, controversial. Here’s a way — finally, maybe! — to combat the persistent falsehoods that slant, ever so slightly, the entire direction of our discourse, political and otherwise. The stubbornness of misperception is, alas, an evergreen story, and one that’s particularly frustrating to journalists, who would prefer to take for granted that the truths they tell will be believed. It’s nice to think that something as relatively simple a bar graph or a pie chart — or, for that matter, something as relatively complex as a detailed interactive graphic — could help turn the tide back toward truth.
While the paper’s findings overall, Nyhan and Reifer write, still “underscore the challenges faced by those who hope to reduce misperceptions among the public,” their glass-half-full conclusion — “that journalists writing stories about changes or trends in a measurable quantity where misperceptions are likely should consider including graphs in their stories” — is good news. And it suggests the good that can come if journalists think about infographics less as ancillary explainers, and more as narrative devices that are integral to stories’ impact.
Image by Keith Ramsey used under a Creative Commons license.